Dread and laughter in ‘Leonard Cohen’ and ‘Taking Steps’

In review: Jerry Mouawad tips his hat to Richard Foreman and freedom at Imago; Alan Ayckbourn's classic farce steps up at Lakewood

Leonard Cohen Is Dead

On a night in 1995, Jerry Mouawad writes in background notes for his new Imago Theatre play Leonard Cohen Is Dead, he found himself sitting in the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre in New York, watching a play called I’ve Got the Shakes, by Richard Foreman, a writer he knew nothing about.

“This single experience changed my view of theater and set me on a new artistic course,” Mouawad continues. “… That night, in 1995, I didn’t understand a thing about I’ve Got the Shakes yet I was spellbound. Here was theater with climaxes and resolutions, but with no recognizable story or plot. While others might be unsettled by such a play (which drifted in and out of my conscious and subconscious) – I found it freed me. Freed me from what I thought theater was to behave like. I found much joy and humor in this abandon. I was entranced in Foreman’s universe of play. A universe that existed only for that play.”

“Leonard Cohen Is dead”: trapped in a cheap hotel. Photo courtesy Imago Theatre

In truth, it wasn’t a huge stretch from the playfulness of Foreman’s faux-philosophical exercises in style and form to the playfulness that was already central to Mouawad’s witty mime-based mask-and-creature shows such as the beloved Frogz that he had been creating for years at Imago with his partner Carol Triffle. What his Foreman encounter seems to have opened for Mouawad is a doorway to a more strictly adult playfulness, one that uses spoken language extensively, but more for musical and suggestive purposes than narrative meaning. The dialogue, elliptical and largely shorn of clarity and connection, becomes simply part of the dance.

Leonard Cohen Is Dead, Mouawad’s latest such invention and one that is intended as something of an homage to Foreman, comes in at a familiarly quick-paced 65 or 70 minutes in a single act, like a long piece of unbroken, self-referential music. Its humor is extremely dry and tongue-in-cheek, and will elude some audience members while it inspires chuckles or guffaws at the oddest of moments from others: I fall, happily, into the latter camp.

The play, as Mouawad is quick to point out, has nothing to do with Leonard Cohen, except obliquely: We discover eventually that the faceless enemy of police officers and radio newscasters outside the besieged walls of the dumpy Motel Nowhere – where the Hey Dey Gang is holed up after kidnapping and then accidentally killing a trillionaire’s daughter – is made up of genetically mutated dead singers (or perhaps creatures who simply have the names of dead singers: Amy Winehouse, Frank Sinatra, or Curt Cobain, they all sound like Edward G. Robinson). This information is both vital and not important at all.

Mouawad, who wrote and directs and designed the set (he also co-designed costumes with Triffle, and the comically melodramatic sound design with Kyle Delamarter) places the action on a deep and narrow stage that represents a shabby motel suite, with lots of doorways and a startlement of garish black-and-white wallpaper. It’s some sort of 1950s midcentury modern version of the end of the world, which may or may not be what the play’s discussing, in its gangster-movie-shootout way. There are six performers – Danny Gray, Stephanie Woods, Emily Welch, Delamarter, and Jonah Kersey as Misters 1 though 5, respectively; and Sawyer Shipman as a policeman who’s sneaked into the motel and claims he wants to switch allegiances and join the gang. This is a quizzical decision considering that the gang members are almost certainly dead men walking.

As are Frogz and ZooZoo and other Imago hits, Leonard Cohen Is Dead is taken up with animal urges and melodrama and the nature of the beast below its surface and, perhaps most of all, the sheer joy of movement. It’s a dance of attitudes, its performers moving singly or in concord with large emotive sweeps and deliberately overdrawn gestures. The women make hay with absurd fake moustaches and beards, and there’s much talk about sex (gay, mostly) and desire (it’s fickle) and death (which is to be courted and dreaded).

Moving like the dancers that they essentially are, the performers create a rhythmic interplay of impression, suggestion, and overwrought reference. The parallels or implications you see might well depend on your own set of references. Mouawad mentions Jean Genet’s play Hotel Splendid and the gangster riffs of Quentin Tarantino and Edward G. Robinson. I found myself thinking, at least fleetingly, of French and Italian films of tortured ennui like Last Year at Marienbad, and the beguilingly downbeat urgency of Ingmar Bergman movies, and the great silent movie comedians, and, dredged from the detritus of American political absurdity, the Symbionese Liberation Army. I even thought of Martha Graham, whose great danced stories were formed from gestural slashes through space as emphatic as any by an abstract expressionist painter, and who insisted that choreographed movements of the body could create deeply emotive tales.

Words are cryptic in Leonard Cohen Is Dead, dropped in like little comic bombs of absurdity: “Everyone out there is not dangerous. And that is dangerous for us … Without danger we will die”; “’Buddhism is overrated.’ ‘Yeah. It takes too long to be enlightened.’” Don’t think too hard. Just feel the thing.

Ah, you ask, searching for meaning or at least resolution in this meaningless or perhaps too drippingly meaningful stage universe: but does the drama end with a whimper or a bang? That, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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  • Leonard Cohen Is Dead, the first production in Imago’s three-play Next Wave Festival, continues through March 16. Ticket and schedule information for all three shows is here.
  • Coming next: Mouawad’s wonderful To Fly Again, which premiered last year, and which I reviewed here. It runs March 22-April 6.
  • The premiere of Triffle’s newest play, Pebble, completes the festival May 10-25.

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Taking Steps

If Leonard Cohen Is Dead is partly about language picked apart and stripped of its narrative purpose, Alan Ayckbourn’s brilliantly nervous 1979 farce Taking Steps approaches meaning almost from the opposite direction, building an intricately constructed and utterly necessary architecture of words to create a scintillating narrative whose emotional implications lurk in a substructure of unspoken suggestion, a haunted basement flat of familiar dread. It is Ayckbourn’s particular genius that his mostly middle-class tales of what Freud called civilization and its discontents – the little tragedies, in common form, of ordinary people, in particular those who are clever enough to see the trap that social traditions represent, but not clever enough to deduce how to escape them – are also devilishly funny.

Spencer Conway, Jeremy Southard, and Garland Lyons in “Taking Steps.” Photo: Triumph Photography.

So Taking Steps, on the boards through April 7 at Lakewood Theatre in Lake Oswego, drew me like a back-alley stray to a fresh shipment of catnip and sardines. I’m a fan of good farce, which has a tradition going back to the Greeks and has found a home in film and television (the TV series Frasier is a brilliantly side-splitting example of the form) but is still most comfortable on the stage. And I’m a particular fan of Ayckbourn, who not so many decades ago was one of the biggest names in the business, a sort of British Neil Simon but with less sentimentality, a darker if still compassionate view of humanity, and a sharper sting. I also admire Brenda Hubbard, director of Lakewood’s Taking Steps, a smart and skillful director whose last work I’d seen – To Kill a Mockingbird, also on the Lakewood stage – had been fresh and faithful to its story while also, somehow, opening it up to honest questions about its assumptions.

How would Hubbard, and Lakewood, fare on Taking Steps? Pretty well, as it turns out. Ayckbourn’s comedy takes place in a big rambling country manse that’s pretty much an expensive historical dump that the cluelessly boorish and filthy rich Roland (Jeremy Southard) is prepared to buy, in the mistaken belief that his former-dancer wife, Elizabeth (Christy Drogosch) wants both it and him. Elizabeth’s sad-sack brother Mark (Garland Lyons) is hanging around the manse, trying to deal with the unfortunate humiliation of having been left at the altar by his fiancée Kitty (Shawna Nordman), who has a little oopsie on the police blotter linked to possible solicitation (the house itself, in an interesting twist, is rumored to be a former bordello that is haunted by the ghost of one of its prostitutes). Leslie (Eric Nepom) is the desperate builder whose business is crumbling around him; he owns the wreck of a house, which Roland is currently renting, and is trying desperately to unload it on him so he can clear up his financial mess. Tristram (Spencer Conway) is Roland’s bumbling, borderline-competent solicitor, who is responsible for getting the two parties to sign on the dotted line, if only he can find either line or dot. In brief, it’s a fine kettle of fish, unfortunately with both minnows and piranhas.

Lakewood’s production opens a bit slowly, the result, I think, of American actors trying too hard to nail their characters’ British dialects; you feel more effort going into getting the language right than to zipping along with the rhythm and meaning of the thing. It’s a constant question with American productions of British plays, and while ideally you’d like to have both right, I’d rather have the dialect a little suspect and the attack clear and pointed than the other way around. But the show settles into itself pretty quickly, recapturing the speed and feel of high-octane comedy. This is crucial to farce. Doors must slam, if not actually (although they often do) then metaphorically: a rhythmic banging and bashing; a lab-rats’ maze of movement for its own sake; a frenetic dash along a treadmill that carries you not to freedom but to a running-in-place. A cloud must hover over a well-made farce, a storm that the audience anticipates, happily, long before it bursts.

The conceit of the title, besides the metaphorical one of the characters taking small steps forward in an attempt to extract themselves from their emotional and financial difficulties, is literal: The play is written to be performed on a single level, which must represent all three levels of the rambling house. On designer John Gerth’s nicely overstuffed set, the virtual stairwell is located in the center, and the actors mime vigorous steppings “up” and “down” it, sometimes nearly running into each other, except that, as their characters are supposed to be on different levels at the time, they can’t, at least in the closed universe of the comedy, actually see each other. Sometimes a good sight gag gets you where you want to go.

Ayckbourn’s dialogue is a constant and revealing pleasure, good for some quick laughs and some deeper revelations of the angst beneath the jollity. The play itself goes tick-tock, a clever mechanism that keeps everything running smoothly. The characters go tock-tick, at war with themselves, constantly getting things wrong, not knowing what they want or wanting conflicting things at the same time, gumming up the works. Taking Steps is a smoothly articulated dive into anarchy – the natural condition, we are encouraged to believe, of the freedom-seeking human animal attempting to survive the strictures and compromises of the cultural compact. I will not tell you what transpires, except to say that a general malaise rules the roost.

Hubbard’s actors work well together, each creating a singular character who is striving, with varying degrees of success, to also connect with the group. I liked all six, and was especially taken with Southard’s clueless alcoholic of a bucket baron, Roland, who is loud and bumptious and preeningly pleased with himself and blissfully unaware of his own ridiculousness; and of Conway’s Tristram, the solicitor, who is haltingly unsure of himself and surprisingly vulnerable, and even more surprisingly capable in the clutches, and who finds himself, by some strange circumstance, at the very center of this odd and troubled family he’s only visiting. There is deep pleasure, too, in appreciating the machinations of Ayckbourn, the masterful mechanic of the farce. The final scenes of Act 1 and of the play itself build to moments of surprised joy and the utter frustration of being trapped betwixt and between. Which is which? That’s for you to find out.

The thing about a good farce – and Taking Steps is a very good farce – is that it entertains us even as it underscores the precariousness of humanity’s thin veneer of civilization, and the horrific delight and heartbreak of recognition we take in while watching little people’s big dreams go bust. We laugh, in equal parts the nervous laughter of self-recognition and the delight of sheer, giddy emotional release. And in case you think a little escapist laughter’s too trivial for times like ours, I have a few screwball comedies I’d love to sell you from a dark stretch of the 20th century that much of the world would just as soon forget.

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